Nestled under palm trees and mounds of white sand, the concrete slabs and rusted iron support beams seem out of place, an eyesore in what would otherwise be paradise. Years ago, however, those ruins were the economic backbone of the tiny southern Pacific fishing village of Uvita. As a fish processing plant, the building served as a hub for the community’s 30-some fishing families for decades, until people started to worry about the whales.
Home to a sizeable population of Pacific humpbacks, Uvita was long a site of environmental concern, and decades ago Costa Rica cordoned off the town’s coastline to form the Marino Ballenas National Park. The decree granted environmental protection to Uvita Beach and banned fishing along the coast, forcing most fishermen to hang up their nets.
But rather than be forced out, the fishermen of Uvita reinvented themselves. Today anyone can board one of Uvita’s former fishing boats as a tourist for a whale watching tour. Last weekend alone, 2,000 people went whale watching during the 6th Annual Whale and Dolphin Festival, and organizers are expecting to give 10,000 tours by the festival’s close on Sept. 14. Once a community that relied on inconsistent commercial fishing, Uvita is now almost entirely reliant on tourism, and right now the whale economy is booming.
Fleeing the frozen winters of the Antarctic and Arctic oceans, Pacific humpback whales will travel up to 5,000 miles yearly to reach warmer waters for breeding and giving birth. Situated near the equator, the tropical waters of the Central American coast draw both the northern Pacific humpbacks from December to April and southern Pacific humpbacks from August through November. A fair number of these whales travel to Costa Rica’s South Pacific, where the protected coves provide protection for mother whales to train their new calves.
In the late 1980s, hoping to protect whales in this region from the country’s growing fishing industry, Costa Rica’s Environment Ministry began to search for a spot to create a whale sanctuary. Few places in the South Pacific stood out like Uvita.
The small village’s coastline has the rich diversity of threatened coral species and protected coves characteristic of the region, and at high tide Uvita Beach looks like any other in the country’s South Pacific. But at low tide, the waves pull back from the beach, revealing a jutting arm of sand sweeping out into the ocean in the unmistakable shape of a whale’s tail. It was as though God himself had designated the beach as a whale sanctuary, and the symbolism was too much to ignore. On Dec. 14, 1989, Marino Ballena National Park was founded, comprising a chunk of the coastline and more than 20 square miles of ocean territory.
In the park’s early days, fishermen struggled to make ends meet with the new regulations. Banned from fishing the coastline, they traveled further into the ocean, using more gas and facing greater risks on the high seas. Once they got to deeper waters, their small fishing boats faced competition from industrial shrimp trawlers, which sucked up much of the available catch. With no production or agriculture in the area, Uvita families were left with few options.
“For years, the park was considered an enemy of the community,” said Fernando Guerrero, one of Marino Ballena’s first park rangers. “People saw it as a threat to their livelihood, and there was a lot of tension between the community and the Environment Ministry.”
A former fisherman, Julio Badilla remembers the early 1990s as Uvita’s dark days. Few people had work, and a general malaise spread throughout the community. As time passed, the clashes between Uvita residents and the Environment Ministry escalated. Park rangers received regular threats from locals, and illegal fishing operations ran rampant within the park’s boundaries. Some families left Uvita in search of opportunities elsewhere. Finally, the conflict boiled over when a band of angry residents burned down the home of a park ranger.
“That was the breaking point,” Badilla said.
The Environment Ministry hired mediators to work with the community, and helped three fishermen open small tour operations in the park. Badilla was among the first to join up, opening his company Dolphin Tour with one small fishing boat. Throughout the ’90s more tour businesses opened, but Uvita remained a rustic, mostly local tourist destination for years. Then in the year 2000, the first electricity lines arrived, and the town began to transform.
According to Costa Rica’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), the Uvita area attracted 67,000 tourists in 2007, and in 2009, tour operators organized the first Whale and Dolphin Festival. The following year, construction finished on the coastal highway, linking Uvita and the surrounding communities to Costa Rica’s main road system and cutting the commute from San José from six hours to three and a half. By 2011, the number of visitors to the region had doubled, and today more than 140,000 tourists travel to Uvita each year. Almost all of them are drawn in by the whales, say tourism business owners.
“The tours became a model for further development rather than just an alternative to fishing,” said Guerrero. “This is an economic system for the community, created by the community.”
On the morning of Sept. 6, the Whale and Dolphin Festival was in full swing on Uvita Beach. Hundreds of people milled about the park’s entrance carrying cameras and binoculars and lathering on sunscreen. More than 95 percent of the tourists are Ticos, entire families down from San José for the weekend or a spur-of-the-moment trip.
“I got on my motorcycle this morning in Alajuela to go to the store and saw the festival sign and drove right down,” said one excited man, as he pulled on his life vest to board the boat. “It was completely unplanned.”
The tourists shelled out ₡20,000 (about $38) to spend two hours cruising the coastline for whales. September is the peak month for whale sightings, and it’s rare that a boat will come back without coming across at least one. Most common are mothers and calves who need to stick closer to the surface, but occasionally a captain will come across a male leaping out of the water in a breeding display.
There are now 19 whale tour companies in Uvita, all of which are participating in the Whale and Dolphin Festival. Organizers estimate that tours alone will bring in about $380,000 during the two-weekend festival.
“The real advantage of this festival is the branching effect of the tourism dollar,” said Ulises Ramírez, the festival’s organizer and a member of the Association of Tour Operators (Asotur). “This doesn’t just benefit the tour operators, but also [it benefits] the informal sector – guys who sell coconuts or T-shirts on the side of the road. The park has economic implications for the entire region.”
Though hotels, restaurants and other types of tours are also significant parts of the economy, Asotur members say that 90 percent of Uvita’s economy ultimately relies on the park’s ability to attract people to the area. Area business owners tend to agree.
Just up the road at the entrance to Uvita, the travel agency Costa Rica Te Enamora has embraced the town’s image, crafting their office building into the shape of a giant humpback. The volunteer inside, Deborah Allainito, said that nearly all of the tours they sell for Uvita are related to whales or dolphins.
“I would say most people who come here come expecting to see whales,” said Tra McPeak, the owner of the Tucan Hotel, a local hostel. “If it weren’t for the park, this place would not be what it is.”
Along with attracting people to the area, the whales’ two migrating seasons also give Uvita’s tourism economy unusual stability. From May to November, most tourism businesses see a drop for the rainy season, but the whales keep people coming to Uvita. Several tourism business owners consulted for this story boasted of having the best August on record this year, and they say things have steadily improved since the whale festival started six years ago. Even putting seasons aside, the switch to tourism has given economic security to the community that fishing never provided.
“When you take out a boat of tourists, the tourists pay. You know you are getting money,” Badilla said. “When you go out fishing you never know what will happen. For everyone here, things are much, much better.”
Out in the water, five different boats form a haphazard semi-circle around a dark shadow in the water. The shadow moves slowly, growing darker as the creature behind it rises to the surface. A mother humpback tips her back out of the water, exposing a blueish-gray dorsal fin and a massive blowhole the size of a trash can. The whale shoots out steam with an audible sigh before submerging again, flipping out her tail on the way down.
It’s an unusual site in Marino Ballena – not the whales, but the number of boats. The festival this year is bigger, featuring more companies and selling more tickets than ever before.
The high tour volumes prompted one nongovernmental organization, Costa Rica Forever, to donate $75,000 for additional coastal monitoring, and other NGOs donated their time to educate tour operators. But even beyond the tours, mismanaged coastal developments can threaten the park’s health, and Uvita’s tourism industry is forced to walk a fine line between healthy progress and development that could destroy their eco-tourism industry. The town already approached that line once, in the golden age of Costa Rican tourism before the 2008 financial crash in the United States.
In the months right before the financial crash, Marino Ballena Park Administrator Juan Luis Sánchez remembers flying over Uvita to take a gander at the blossoming million-dollar developments along the coast.
“We looked down right near the coast and counted 18 backhoes tearing down trees very close to the park,” he said. “That sort of thing is worrying.”
With the recession, most large projects were canceled, but the potential for explosive development remains. While some in Uvita favor more tours, more hotels and more large-scale projects, environmentalists and whale experts worry that overdevelopment could do more harm than good. Poorly constructed coastal developments can cause land shifts that could damage the park and deter whales, and increased ocean whale watching can cause stress for humpbacks.
Approaching a whale from behind, using loud motors or getting too close makes whales anxious, and SINAC employs distance-and-approach guidelines to ease the stress for the whales. Failure to comply can result in a fine, but tour operators have other reasons to want to follow the regulations.
“If tour operators consistently stress the whales, then they will change their migration habitats,” said David Palacios, a biologist with the Keto Foundation, a marine conservation NGO closely associated with the national park. “If the whales stop coming back, that harms the area’s tourism businesses as much as anyone else.”
The importance of staying in this sweet spot is not lost on anyone in the region. While tour boats may crowd one whale, they all maintain their distance. Tour operations tout the importance of responsible tourism on their websites and comply with regulations. SINAC officials are also considering limits on how many people can enter what is now the country’s third most-visited national park, but the true driver of sustainable development in Uvita will need to come from the community itself.
“Everyone is aware that the whales are the lung of the economy,” Sánchez said. “Everyone wants progress, but they know there are other ways to accomplish that, ways that won’t scare off the thing that got us here in the first place.”
At 2 p.m., the whale festival starts to wrap up as the clouds roll in for the daily rainy-season storm. The tide has receded, exposing a fresh patch of sand undisturbed by footprints. As the tour groups make their way out of the park, others begin streaming in for a walk out to the famous whale’s tail. The beach walkers make their way along the treeline. Some pause to drop their flip-flops at the ruins of the old Uvita fishing plant, now only a crumbling concrete foundation.
For more than two decades, the plant’s walls remained intact, but in 2011 a tsunami caused by the Japanese earthquake swept over all of Uvita Beach, swallowing the fishing plant and even the whale’s tail. For days, locals worried that the ocean would never recede to its normal levels, hiding the whale’s tail beneath the surface forever.
When the low tide finally came, locals headed to the beach to survey the damage. The fishing plant was completely destroyed, swept away into the ocean, but just ahead, sitting along the horizon line, the whale’s tail remained, its rocks sticking triumphantly out of the ocean’s surface, calling the whales home.